The modern world faces various military bioethical problems. A series of prominent issues – such as battlefield euthanasia, battlefield organ transplants, military medical research, the use of vaccines, emergent public health crises, and ecological ethical problems – challenge our moral conscience and our cultural commitments, both in the West and in China. Chinese bioethical scholars need to turn their attention to these important but thorny issues and provide ethically appropriate solutions by drawing on their intellectual and ethical resources.
The recent history of military bioethical research in China shows that the character of such research is culture-laden. Influenced by the long-standing Confucian tradition that emphasizes virtue-cultivation, Chinese military bioethical studies have focused on issues such as to how to educate and promote the moral character of military physicians. However, they have overlooked – or at least have not given sufficient attention to – analyses of military bioethical dilemmas and contexts that are needed to develop adequate and feasible ethical solutions to the new problems facing today’s military. This academic situation should be improved to ensure that Chinese military bioethical research moves forward.
It is true that Confucianism is a central moral tradition in China. It is also true that theoretical Confucian morality can be taken as virtue ethics, which emphasizes moral cultivation. However, it is not true that Confucian virtue ethics only focuses on issues of character development, ignoring specific ethical problems or conflicts. This essay takes the perspective that traditional Chinese Confucian ethics (which emphasizes moral cultivation) and modern Western ethics (which focuses on the application of general principles to particular contexts) should learn from each other and offer more comprehensive arguments and appropriate solutions to military bioethical issues. Indeed, Confucian moral practices – rituals (li) – are embedded in the everyday lives of people in general and the activities of military physicians in particular. These rituals provide concrete guidance in particular contexts, but they are not absolute moral rules. Confucianism calls for moral deliberation by exercising the virtues achieved through observing rituals. However, a principle of the middle way is that we should function according to the Confucian way of life. These intellectual and moral resources could be drawn upon to explore Chinese military bioethics.